Israel rejected a cease-fire offer from the Palestinian group Hamas as a humanitarian aid crisis erupting in the Gaza Strip threatened wider instability. The crisis in the troubled Palestinian territory deepened as President Bush, meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Washington, offered assurances that a two-state deal is possible before he leaves office in January.
... [The] Palestinian group offered to cease cross-border rocket attacks if Israel opens crossing points into Gaza and ends military incursions into the Palestinian territory.
Ghazi Hamad, a Hamas spokesman, told Al Jazeera that it would aim to improve the situation in Gaza first and then expand to the West Bank as well.
He said: "I think the key condition for this ceasefire is that Israel should re-open all the crossings [into Gaza], especially the Rafah crossing, in order to allow people and goods to move in and out and to lift the embargo on the Palestinian people.
"Without opening the crossings, there will be no means for the ceasefire."
Israel quickly balked, calling it a ruse by which Hamas hoped to get time to rest before launching more attacks, according to another Al Jazeera report.
"Hamas is biding time in order to rearm and regroup. There would be no need for Israel's defensive actions if Hamas would cease and desist from committing terrorist attacks on Israelis," David Baker, Israeli government spokesman, said on Friday.
Israel has sealed the Gaza Strip off from all but vital humanitarian aid since Hamas, an Islamist movement pledged to the destruction of the Jewish state, seized control of the territory last June.
Humanitarian agencies say Gaza, one of the world's most densely populated areas with 1.5 million people living in a narrow sliver of land, is teetering on the brink of disaster.
Israel says the sanctions it applies are necessary to pressure Hamas to end near-daily rocket attacks on Israeli communities and military positions near the fenced-off border.
The United Nations stopped distributing food to Palestinian refugees in the Gaza Strip on Thursday after its vehicles ran out of fuel because of the Israeli blockade, a U.N. official said.
Israeli countered that fuel is available, but said the Islamic group Hamas ruling Gaza is preventing it from being distributed.
A spokesman for the United Nations' Relief Works Agency, Adnan Abu Hasna, said 700,000 Palestinians won't be getting packages of basic foods because the agency could not bring in new shipments or distribute them without fuel for its vehicles.
"All of our regular food operations have stopped because of the fuel shortage," he said.
Israel imposed a blockade after Hamas fighters seized control of Gaza last June in a five-day battle with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's security forces.
Israeli authorities ship fuel for Gaza's power plant but maintain a ban on gasoline and diesel fuel for general use.
Analysts in the Middle East say the fuel shortage highlights that conditions in the Gaza strip are reaching a critical point and could threaten further instability, according to the Arab weekly Al-Ahram, which quotes Palestinian economist Hazem Kawasmi:
[I]n the Gaza Strip, where there is economic meltdown resulting from the hermetic Israeli blockade, Kawasmi predicts an "explosion" in the coming few weeks or months. This explosion, he argued, would again be directed towards the Egyptian border, for the sake of getting food, medicine and all kinds of goods that don't exist today in the Gaza Strip.
"One cannot expect people to live in hunger and in high rates of poverty and unemployment for a long time. There is no convincing justification why the Palestinian- Egyptian border at Rafah has not opened yet, even on temporary basis, leaving Gazan children, women and elderly people to die slowly and suffer on a daily basis," he said.
In a briefing to the Security Council, Assistant Secretary General Angela Kane said Gaza had suffered "heightened humanitarian distress" caused by closed border crossings with Israel and Egypt, the shortage of basic food and commodities, poor water supplies and sanitation.
More than 80% of Gaza's population rely on humanitarian assistance, with UN food aid going to about 1.1 million people. A high proportion of them are children.
These developments come a day after President George Bush, meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at the White House, said a two-state deal is still possible before Mr. Bush leaves office, The New York Times reports.
Mr. Bush met Thursday at the White House with the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, part of a flurry of high-level meetings aimed at shoring up the flagging Middle East peace talks. The president said afterward that he "remained confident that the talks could produce parameters for a Palestinian state."
"I assured the president that a Palestinian state's a high priority for me and my administration: a viable state, a state that doesn't look like Swiss cheese, a state that provides hope," Mr. Bush said, adding, "I'm confident we can achieve the definition of a state."
Mr. Abbas praised Mr. Bush for "seeking a true, genuine and lasting peace in the Middle East."